He dribbled up the right side of the court with 10 seconds left, in an overflowing gym hard by the edge of the farmland that abuts the south end of Ypsilanti Charter Township.
Ten … nine … eight ….
He crossed half-court with six seconds left, and by the time Emoni Bates began searching for room to launch, everyone in the crowd was on its feet.
Most of the thousands who’d squeezed into Ypsilanti Lincoln’s (Mich.) gym were there to see Bates, to catch a glimpse of the nation’s top-rated freshman and Michigan’s most promising high school basketball player in decades.
I was there to see my son, and to support the players he’s helped coach for Skyline (Ann Arbor, Mich). Players, I should disclose, that I had a (very) small hand in coaching myself a couple of years ago in a fall league.
RELATED: Bates hits game-winning 3-pointer
So I got there early, as did most of the crowd, knowing that to secure a seat in the stands meant watching the first regional semifinal of the night between Wayne Memorial and Novi Detroit Catholic Central — an admitted bonus for a hoops addict.
By halftime of that game, maybe 90 minutes before tipoff of the main event, lines snaked down the corridors of the high school.
When the last of the crowd finally nudged its way inside the gymnasium, folks took up residence wherever they could: standing six-deep in the corners, sitting five-deep along the baseline, legs crossed, craning over a line of photographers.
School officials and local police had long since given in to the throng, as hundreds crammed into the stairs rising up the bleachers or wedged themselves under the railings behind the team benches and scorer’s table.
Seven … six … five ….
The game was tied. In the previous four minutes, Bates and his teammates, mostly seniors, had just erased a 10-point deficit.
Skyline had done everything it could to spoil the moment. The Eagles’ own star, Ryan Wade, a sublime shooter, was having an off night from deep, but had grinded his way to 20 points.
Without his effort, and that of a group of tough-minded role players having the night of their lives, Bates wouldn’t have had the stage, the moment.
Here was a high school game that offered everything:
On one end, there was Bates, a transcendent presence, a 6-feet-8-inch prodigy, a just-turned 15-year-old with a 30-year-old’s poise and a gym rat’s dedication to practice. (The week before, after Bates struggled through a 4-for-19 night in the district final against Saline High School, he delayed his celebratory meetup with his team at a nearby restaurant to hoist hundreds of shots.)
And on the other end… Robert Malcom, a senior point guard who, on this night, had hit four free throws down the stretch to slow Lincoln’s comeback.
Malcom, according to his coach, Mike Lovelace, had improved in-season like no one he’d had in all his years of coaching. Malcom is headed to Morehouse College; his father said his journey of self-discovery on the court this winter will propel him in the classroom next fall.
There was Spencer Morgan, a mostly earthbound 6-foot-3 backup, center, his lack of hops overshadowed by his ferocity under the rim, thrust into the game because of foul trouble.
There was Davion Pipkins, a football player who’d figured out how to unleash his love of contact without fouling every time and had found a role as a disruptor.
There was DeSean Munson, a 6-6 leaper, a pogo stick who’d fought his low-key internal motor all season yet was exerting a kind of controlled fury; Munson threw his shoulder into Bates on a rebound, delivering a message that he was there, too.
There was Jaylin Cooper, a small shooting guard and on-and-off starter who’d knocked down three 3-pointers.
All of them were seniors, and all of them had found their place next to Wade , one of the best shooters in the state. Wade, bound for Holy Cross next fall, had spent this season putting his own stamp on the team, a year after his brother Brandon (now at Duquesne University) had led Skyline to a last-minute loss in the regional finals.
Few expected Ryan’s team to repeat the run made by Brandon’s squad.
Yet here they were, finally together, so close to toppling a phenom and rewriting last season’s ending.
Four … three ….
Everyone in the gym knew who was going to take the last shot. Anyone who thought Bates would miss was either overly hopeful or just plain foolish.
In the run to the regional semis, Bates had taken — and made — nearly every critical shot. Aside from his spectacular talent — the handle of a point guard with the vision of a quarterback — it’s the inevitability of what he’s going to do that startles.
Lincoln’s coach, Jesse Davis, had drawn up two plays during the timeout. One for man defense, one for a zone. Skyline, as it had all game, remained in its sticky zone.
With a little over four seconds, one of Bates’ teammates screened Pipkins above the 3-point line on the left wing. Bates sped up his dribble, bolted to his left, and fired from 25 feet out.
— Overtime (@overtime) March 6, 2019
He stood still after he released it, staring at its gorgeous arc, marveling at his own creation.
“I like shots in tough times like that,” Bates told statechampsnetwork.com. “Especially in crunch time. I need that. That’s what is going to make me better … I’ve worked so hard on my jump shot, when I let it go, I knew it was going to go in.”
When his shot snapped through the net with three seconds left, his teammates mobbed him.
Officials did their best to keep fans off the court. Bates, meanwhile, slipped from his teammates’ embrace and sprinted to the edge of the court next to the student section, enjoying their awe.
Everywhere you looked, someone held a cell phone aloft. Within minutes, video of the scene began popping up on social media.
Eventually, the refs and coaches got the players back to their benches, and Skyline had one final play. Wade caught the ball near half-court, dribbled, leapt, and heaved it toward the rim.
The crowd stormed the court, encircling Bates, bobbing with him in joy. Wade and Co. slumped their shoulders. Morgan sobbed. Lovelace, the steady coach, took it in, stunned.
For the next few minutes, reporters grabbed Lincoln’s players and coaches to interview them among the throng. Skyline’s players retreated to their locker room while parents and supporters consoled each other near the bench.
“They played their hearts out,” someone said.
“The refs … man,” said another, looking for a way to explain … no, to comprehend what just happened.
Back in the Skyline locker room, players expressed gratitude and dismay, love and a sense of the moment. They understood how fleeting it can be, this game of their lives.
“It’s about the journey,” said Lovelace. “In those moments, the end hits them like a ton of bricks.”
…30 minutes later
As the players trickled out, assistant coach Keith Wade — Ryan and Brandon’s father, and a former standout point guard at the University of Toledo — leaned against a wall, holding back tears.
Several years earlier, Keith had survived a different kind of battle. It was in those moments, after an organ transplant, that he saw the path that led him here, to this night, to a role helping kids chase their dreams.
He helped my son Sam once, from his hospital bed, calling me at the break of dawn one morning to offer words to pass along to my youngest. Sam was deep on the bench that season, stuck in a battle of self-discovery.
Wade invited him to the hospital to chat. He wanted to free his spirit.
He made similar calls to dozens of players over the years. And while Sam had moments here and there as a player, he didn’t truly find himself in the gym until he began to coach.
He got the bug last summer. Joined Skyline’s freshman staff this fall. Found himself filming and scouting Bates last week in the district playoffs, then sharing a few thoughts with Lovelace and Wade and the staff in meetings.
He was thrilled, in a way most of us are as we begin to find our voice. Whatever regret he carried for not committing enough hours to the gym, for not fulfilling his potential, was soothed by passing along lessons to players sitting where he once did.
That’s coaching. That’s also life. And part of that is knowing that sometimes no matter how much you prepare, or how much you compete, or how much you lead by with four minutes left, someone else will make a play.
Someone else will take the inbounds pass in a tied regional semifinal, unbothered that only 10 seconds remain.
Even on film — and I’ve seen Bates’ final sequence a dozen times — it’s still striking to watch a 15-year-old move as if he’s out for a stroll in the grass — unhurried, unworried.
We won’t know whether Bates will grow into his body or grow into the expectation for him for years. But for a night, for a moment, he showed what the future could look like.
In the end, Lovelace and his team had to accept that. Accept that the final 10 seconds of their season were left to a shooting star, and that some of us are destined for the clouds.
As Bates talked about his game-winning shot with statechampsnetwork.com: “(Those moments) just bring all my energy out, because I know they came here to see a show, and that’s what I’m going to give them.”
Yes, a show. Witnessed by thousands. Not soon forgotten.
Certainly not by my son, who went to bed early after the game and tossed and turned thinking about the night, unbeknownst to me. I received a text from him around 2 a.m.
He’d sent me a photo of him and his older brother, Jake. The two were posing on Sam’s senior night at Skyline a couple of years ago. His face looked uneasy, his body language unsettled.
He’d loved playing and loved his teammates, but in that moment, he hadn’t realized where he belonged in a gym.
Tuesday night at a high school on the outskirts of Ypsilanti Township helped give him an answer. As he wrote in the late-night text, below the photo, borrowing from an old Faces song:
“I wish I knew what I know now … when I was younger.”
He couldn’t sleep. But after he sent me the text, I did.